A life in the mind of Mike “Toilet” Engleby
Setting aside the fact that ‘Engleby‘ is a gripping psychological thriller of sorts, Sebastian Faulks’ new novel is also a brilliant meditation on the unreliability of memory, on the things lost by the fallability of the human mind. It also examines the unattainability or brevity of the present in an ever-evolving world and the protagonist’s philosophical, and indeed psychological, inability to cope with that. Coupled with the faultlines in his memory, the fact that the eponymous Mike Engleby cannot account for events in his past has disastrous consequences for his future: “There are some things in the past that may have happened and some that may not have happened. But the reality of their happening or not happening then has no weight now“.
Faulks’ atmospheric – at times deceptively nostalgic – rendering of the 1970s means that while ‘Engleby’ deals with the past, it does not conform to the author’s favoured genre of the historical novel. Rather, in telling a whole life as a memoire – albeit one truncated by a selective or unreliable memory – Faulks is aiming to show life as transitive: always lived and felt, but fleeting and ungraspable. It’s an astonishing work that cleverly uses the first person to play with notions of narrational reliability: of the lucidity and accountability of adulthood over youth, and of course the fragility of the human mind. Indeed the subject of psychosis is explored in far more interesting ways here than in the research-heavy but poorly characterised ‘Human Traces‘. However, the groundwork done on Faulks’ earlier work has really paid off in ‘Engleby’, a novel whose simplicity of form belies the depth of his knowledge of psychiatry.
As a loner and misanthrop, Mike Engleby is a rather marginal – if not invisible – character in the world that he inhabits, enabling a honest while cynical detailing of the life and times that surround him. He drifts through 1970s and 80s Britain, pulled along by the social transformations that shaped the period yet mysteriously detached from them, wavering between brutal lucidity and inertia. We notice very early, however, that something is missing from Mike “Toilet” Engleby’s perception of himself, his memory, and the clarity of his perception of other people. It is difficult to judge at first whether we are just constricted by his subjective world view or if the narrator is being deliberately selective with the truth. At first his memory of events seems to have the supernatural accuracy of a savant, then seems obsessive, later completely unreliable.
Throughout the book we – and the narrative – are impelled by a desire to understand Engleby, or his place in the world, as much as to discover the truth of his actions. It’s a wonderfully compulsive read, eventually driven by the protagonist’s need to comprehend himself. Therefore, what we have is a portrait of someone which starts sketchily and gradually gains colour and clarity, much in the way that our minds tell – or trick – us into perceiving the present (a “trick” given that the richness of the present disolves with time). Debateably his finest novel, certainly his best since ‘Birdsong‘, ‘Engleby’ is one of the best new novels I have read in years.